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Plain old Kraken

Kraken, the apocalyptically named covid subvariant, is actually unremarkable, according to a Wairarapa-based epidemiologist.

Last week saw the detection of New Zealand’s first two cases of the omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 that’s been making international headlines since December, when it began sweeping across the United States.

Many of those headlines were inspired by a nickname from Norse mythology that it fails to live up to, according to Wairarapa-based epidemiologist Roger Morris.

“Don’t use the name ‘Kraken’,” he said. “A professor in Canada – Dr Ryan Gregory from Gulth University – has been unofficially naming subvariants after Norse gods since the start of the pandemic. This went completely unnoticed until he called the latest one Kraken, and it caught on.

“Because he used Kraken, it sounds like it will cause an apocalypse because people read [apocalyptic science fiction novel] The Kraken Wakes, but it’s not remarkably different from the other subvariants.”

Although the World Health Organisation has said the XBB.1.5 subvariant has much higher transmissibility than previous versions, Morris said he is sceptical.

“It is the most rapidly spreading subvariant in the US, but there’s been so little testing we don’t know how it will affect other countries.

“It is more transmissible than the other subvariants because that’s how the virus evolves. It must be more transmissible than the last to become the dominant variant.

“Hospitalisation rates are rising in the US, but that is largely due to winter illnesses.”

Morris said a big concern for new variants was ‘immune escape’ – which is when the vaccine is no longer effective against the virus – but recent evidence has indicated it isn’t an issue for the current Kraken variant.

“Although our immunity from the vaccinations is waning, it is still effective,” Morris said.

Covid-19 cases recorded in Wairarapa dropped this week, with 190 new cases compared to the 260 recorded the previous week.

Morris said the case data isn’t reliable because people are not reporting positive test results.

“It’s the summer holiday effect. People are too busy doing other things to submit their test results.”

Then again, Morris notes, “we don’t need to know how many cases there are. Hospitalisations is the only data I would trust – it is far more accurate.”

With immunity against the virus slowly waning, pharmaceutical company Pfizer has developed a bivalent vaccine that includes components from the original variants and from omicron.

Morris said the updated vaccine is awaiting human data and Medsafe approval before it is made available in New Zealand.

Helen Holt
Helen Holt
Helen Holt is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age and enjoys reporting on a variety of topics, regularly covering Wairarapa events, tourism, local businesses, and the occasional health story.

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